Maybe You Really Are An Imposter

During the first 20 years of my career, I frequently found myself in situations where I was unwelcome and unwanted but (usually) tolerated. Maybe it was because the world in the early 2000s was different for women and pretty much everyone in the LGBTQ community (like cell phones, it seems like we take same-sex marriage for granted now even though it has only been legal since 2015; it’s younger than your third-grader!). Maybe it was because I was inexperienced and not yet adept at the work I was tasked with doing. Or maybe I was an annoying self-righteous twenty something. Hard to say why exactly—and that’s probably because it was a combination of all of those things.

Along the way, I’ve been through a bigger share of humbling crucibles than I’d prefer. They have each revealed falsehoods that I previously took for granted, and truths that I’d failed to internalize. I’ve also had the opportunity to learn from smaller mistakes, making less drastic refinements to my worldview and deepening my understanding of what situations require and how to handle them effectively. I’m not an expert in very much, but one thing I have learned to do reflexively is observe and respond accordingly. Collectively, these experiences have also revealed the ways in which systems and habits can systematically disenfranchise some people. Both of these realities are simultaneously true: systems made it harder on me, and I had a lot of learning to do to earn my expertise.

So when I hear from other leaders—particularly women, but leaders of all stripes—that they are struggling and have self-diagnosed imposter syndrome as the underlying cause of those struggles, it gives me pause. I know well that many spaces are indeed unwelcoming, either explicitly or implicitly, still today. I know first hand that a caustic national dialogue that positions some identities as less than can seep into private consciousness and hijack one’s sense of worthiness as a human being. But I also see that responding to stressors with a diagnosis rather than a growth mindset is actually just a pernicious reinforcement of this brokenness.

With perhaps some irony, I found myself preparing to write this piece by questioning how it might be possible that I am the first person to observe that the rampant use of “imposter syndrome” by so many women and minorities is counter-productive. It turns out that a 2021 piece in Harvard Business Review observes that the imposter syndrome label is billed as a tool of liberation for people who feel that they’re not really qualified for their roles, but in reality is an excuse that lets biased systems off the hook. Yes. And:

It also lets employees and employers off the hook for recognizing and responding to actual gaps in capacity.

In a world where we have ostensibly transitioned away from “human resources” into “talent management”, we as employers and employees alike continue to subscribe to the idea that people who are not performing are a problem. In reality, people who are not performing are our biggest opportunity and we have a multitude of levers at our disposal. Are they a misfit with the role? Are they lacking core competencies they need because there’s a big jump between the work they did before and what’s asked of them now? Are they demotivated by a poor manager or a deficient organizational vision?

As employees, particularly those who have hitherto defined their self-worth on the basis of whether they are perceived as highly competent at work, access to information about where and how to improve is the only source of upward mobility. It is literally money. Yet we consider it to be highly undesirable—so much so that we’re willing to diagnose ourselves with a disorder to explain our gaps in capacity. We’re only hurting ourselves when we do that. Actually, we’re hurting ourselves and our employers.

Let’s stop doing this. Let’s stop conflating the natural desire to be liked and successful that is experienced by all human beings with a psychological disorder. Instead, let’s leverage the cues we receive about what’s working and what isn’t to engage ourselves in continuous learning and growth. All of us—employers and employees alike—face a future where the skills we developed yesterday will likely be insufficient for the tasks we face tomorrow. Learning is critical. Discomfort is essential to growth.

Naming shared experiences can be a liberating and transcendent practice. But it can also be a dead end excuse. Beware the inclination to diagnose away the biggest opportunities of your career.